Monday, 30 December 2019

Book review: The Mutations, Jorge Comensal (2019)

This satirical novel came out in Spanish in the author’s native Mexico three years ago. There is at least one error in the translation but it’s not fatal. In other words, it doesn’t fatally obstruct the transference of meaning from the author to the reader. I bought this book recently from my local independent bookseller because it wasn’t available on Kindle.

The architecture is somewhat dicey so, among other things, it’s not immediately clear what the title adds to the narrative, which charts the course of the life of a 50-year-old lawyer who finds out he has a rare cancer in his tongue.

The parrot on the book’s jacket is more redolent with poetry. Ramon (the main character) names the bird Benito Juarez after a dead Mexican president who had been a lawyer. The idea of a lawyer – who is supposed to represent his or her clients in front of the authorities, and “speak for” them in those places – losing the power of speech is laden with enough meaning to sink a ship, but then giving him a parrot who swears like a sailor cements the point in your imagination. Perhaps a better title might have been ‘The Caged Bird’, alluding both to the parrot on the cover as well as to Ramon’s dilemma.

But you are supposed to have things standing in for higher powers, and the roles that professionals play in this book make it a novel of ideas as well as a satire.

There is Teresa, Ramon’s psychologist, who dispenses marijuana as a palliative in addition to the advice she provides during consultations. Then there’s Dr Aldama, the oncologist, who loves classical music and who dispenses prescriptions for opiates. Within the spaces filled by these characters – in addition to Ramon’s wife Carmela, his daughter Paulina (15), his son Mateo (18), and his housekeeper Elodia – there’s plenty of time in this short novel, which moves very briskly toward a conclusion, to dwell on big questions.

Some even are answered, at least as far as you can trust this author, who seems to be a dedicated secularist. The words you use in Mexico for this kind of person might be, for all I know, different from the ones you use in my country. But whatever you choose to believe, this novel can be recommended as a tonic to today’s vituperative and rambunctious public sphere. Perhaps we all should all be a bit more like Ramon, and keep our thoughts to ourselves.

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